Why Shakespeare?

It’s a slow blog day and I thought I’d bash out a quick post on this before I lose this thought once again.

We had a forum of sorts at the NIE the other day, and I raised an issue which has been close to my heart for some time. I’m gonna raise it again here now, not only because it needs to be talked about, but also because I want to save it somewhere for posterity.

My stand:

The teaching of Literature in schools should preferably center on contemporary writers, both local and global. We should only teach Shakespeare and similar writers at the university level.

Reasons/Explication:

  1. “Shakespeare and similar writers” = anything that was published before the student’s own parents were born. To be more specific:
  2. “Contemporary” = an inversely proportional function which I will work on establishing so it doesn’t seem arbitrary. It should be something along the lines of: for students sitting for the ‘O’ level in 2009, year that work was published should be between 10 – 15 years ago. For students sitting for the ‘A’ level in 2009, year that work was published should be between 16 – 30 years ago. For undergraduates, the period/genre/text type etc. is fair game – they are majoring in Literature, after all.
  3. Reason for the above: we don’t want to spend too much time deciphering the language. The ‘contemporary’ rule ensures that the language and themes are accessible to the students.
  4. One argument against my stand: Shakespeare’s work is beautiful; we stand to lose more than we gain if we stop teaching his work. My view: I agree. His work rocks. But a majority of students really have a problem with the language (I will touch on this in my next point). Why turn them off from Literature right from the start? Maybe one way to negotiate this is to update the language used in Shakespearean works, but literary purists are going to have a problem with that as well.
  5. Another argument against my stand: students must be trained to work with the language; it’s part of the struggle to learn; there’s nothing very difficult if they try, etc. My response: The people who make this argument (and the other arguments for keeping Shakespeare in teenage students’ syllabuses) often have what I term as ‘the privilege of context’. They’re born into certain families and have access to certain kinds of environments and education which ease the struggle somewhat. For the rest of the students who don’t have these privileges, reading itself might even be a problem. We must keep them in mind when teaching.
  6. Last but not least, an argument against my stand has a bit of flawed logic in it. It goes something like this: if I went through the Singapore system and I studied Shakespeare, and I came out of it unscathed, so can the other students. No. That’s like saying we shouldn’t fix what’s broken – when we actually don’t know it’s broken because we can’t see the cracks. Furthermore, it adopts a very selfish viewpoint: I’m like this, so everyone can be the same too. The only reason why we came out of it unscathed was because: (a) even if we had problems, we could overcome it because of our inherent traits or determination to do well, and (b) See point (5).

There’s probably more to say but I’ve exhausted my words for now and I’ve to go for the production soon. But I’ll definitely want to revisit this topic again if I have the chance or if more ideas spring to mind. Nevertheless, feel free to add in your thoughts in the comments section, if you have any.

About the author

Laremy Lee

A versatile educator, writer and editor, Laremy Lee (李庭辉) has the uncanny knack of being one of the few among his generation in Singapore who crafts compelling stories in different genres.

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  • But if we do not teach Shaky and co, then aren’t we being condescending in thinking the students can’t get “it”?

    The argument you’re making is to simplify things, but don’t you think we should set high standards so that even if the students fall short slightly, they would still be in good standing. In my USP writing course, I understood maybe 15% of the readings but look where that got me now.

    Besides, if maths is made to be so difficult, and students struggle to learn it and become better for it, then why not English? Why shouldn’t learning involve learning to overcome difficulty?

    Isn’t it too late to start introducing writers of different periods at university level? How are we to catch up with UK universities then?

    What attracts me to the Victorian period is that many of their concerns are our concerns now. In other words, we can learn from them. So I think your scope of contemporary fiction is too narrow. Make it the 20th century at least.

    • But if we do not teach Shaky and co, then aren’t we being condescending in thinking the students can’t get “it”?

      There are students who ‘get’ it, but there are students who don’t. The students who ‘get’ it at a young age might go on to major in English. The students who don’t are just put off by Lit. For the former group, they are most likely going to major in English anyway, so why not pay some attention to the latter group? At least make learning Lit fun and enjoyable for them.

      The argument you’re making is to simplify things, but don’t you think we should set high standards so that even if the students fall short slightly, they would still be in good standing.

      True. But some students aren’t even able to walk yet, so no point teaching them how to fly. Learning needs to be progressive.

      In my USP writing course, I understood maybe 15% of the readings but look where that got me now.

      Same here. But I still don’t see why we must teach Shakey to students of lower-ability?

      Besides, if maths is made to be so difficult, and students struggle to learn it and become better for it, then why not English? Why shouldn’t learning involve learning to overcome difficulty?

      Then we only privilege a certain group of people – those who are able to defer gratification the longest.

      Isn’t it too late to start introducing writers of different periods at university level? How are we to catch up with UK universities then?

      Should we introduce Foucault in high school then, so that students get a headstart?

      What attracts me to the Victorian period is that many of their concerns are our concerns now. In other words, we can learn from them. So I think your scope of contemporary fiction is too narrow. Make it the 20th century at least.

      I know. But like I said, the students mainly face difficulties in interpreting Ye Olde English. This is why I’d like to see a Lit syllabus where we teach students Lit in reverse chronological order.

  • Oh, I’m having a literary discussion with Alvin Pang and two friends on facebook emails. Do you want to join? I think this post will spark off some debate? But they write a few emails a day so if you’re busy…

    • Sure. I don’t mind the introduction 🙂

  • Yanjie

    Have similar thoughts about the Geography syllabus as well. Yes the standards are high, but you put off students and it kills their joy of learning it.

    Also, students these days have lots to juggle with. Too many “high-standards” is killing them.

    • That’s true. Too many requirements to fulfill and not enough time to grow up and have fun.